Writing Great Job Descriptions A well-written job description will help your employees stay on task and keep you out of legal hot water.

By Chris Kelleher

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Q: My company has grown by leaps and bounds. To make sure my employees know their responsibilities, I thought this would be a good time to write a job description for each position. Are there any tips I need to know?

A: Congratulations! Writing job descriptions is a big step in making the transition from chaotic startup to growing and profitable business.

Some of the key business reasons to have job descriptions are: They clearly define job responsibilities and expectations; they keep employees focused on their job and away from "poaching" in someone else's job territory; and they can serve as a benchmark for evaluations, pay increases and bonuses.

But in today's world of lawsuit mania, there are at least two legal reasons why you need to have great-and not just OK-job descriptions.

The first legal reason is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many requirements of the ADA are determined or influenced by the essential functions of the job, which an employer can reasonably determine in a job description.

Ah, but that's the rub. In addition to being very precise about the actual job duties that have to be performed from a business or management standpoint, a great job description today has to be very specific about the physical, ergonomic, environmental and other requirements of the job to be able to comply with certain requirements of the ADA.

For example, if you're writing a job description for a sales position, you should include a specific description of the physical requirements of the job such as "must stand for significant periods of time without a break" or "must meet with customers outside under all weather conditions" or "must be able to travel by car for long distances from city to city."

If you aren't specific and meticulous in describing every important aspect of the job, then the ADA assumes that the employee can perform the actual job duties any way he wants to, regardless of whether or not his way complies with company policy.

The second legal reason is that the U.S. Department of Labor just issued new overtime regulations, which are scheduled to become effective in August 2004. Although the new and current regulations regarding overtime pay are complicated, having a great job description may help a company defend classifying a particular position as exempt from overtime pay.

For example, let's say the job description states that "the employee's primary duty includes the exercise of discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance." If this is in fact the case, then that part of the job description will help you document one of the several requirements to make the employee exempt from overtime pay.

The bottom line on job descriptions is that having a great job description is not only an important management tool, but can also help you comply with various legal requirements.

For help in creating job descriptions, there are various software programs and books available. Of course, always have an employment law attorney review your job descriptions before you decide to use them.

For more details on the proposed overtime regulations, visit www.dol.gov/esa/regs/compliance/whd/fairpay/main.htm.

Note: The information in this column is provided by the author, not Entrepreneur.com. All answers are general in nature, not legal advice and not warranted or guaranteed. Readers are cautioned not to rely on this information. Because laws change over time and in different jurisdictions, it is imperative that you consult an attorney in your area regarding legal matters and an accountant regarding tax matters.

Chris Kelleher is an award-winning small-business advisor and attorney. He's also a sought-after speaker and the founder and resident legal guru of The Law Firm For Businesses, a boutique law firm that helps business owners creatively solve their business and legal problems.

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